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Google Analytics 4 vs Universal Analytics: How Google Analytics 4 Improves Tracking

Posted by Hilda Wandawa on

Google Analytics 4 vs Universal Analytics: How Google Analytics 4 Improves Tracking

Google Analytics 4 (GA4) is on its way to replacing Universal Analytics (UA) as Google recently announced that it would phase out Universal Analytics in July 2023. GA4 introduces a number of useful functions to e-merchants and is quite different from UA.

In this article, we’ll take you through the key differences between Google Analytics 4 and Universal Analytics, as well as show you how these changes will benefit your eCommerce activities.

Google Analytics 4 vs Universal Analytics - What’s New?

Universal Analytics

Google Analytics 4

Measuring models based on

Sessions, pageviews

Events, parameters

Privacy

Need to use IP anonymization feature

Does not store IP addresses

Reports

Provides many predefined reports, limited multi-device, and cross-platform reporting

Focuses on custom reports, user-centric reports, full multi-device, and cross-platform reporting

Segments

2

3

Hit limits

10 million

No limit

New Metrics

Engaged sessions, Average engagement time per session, Engagement rate with access to BigQuery (also remove Bounce rate)

Measuring Models

One of the major differences between Universal Analytics and Google Analytics 4 is the way data is measured. UA’s measurement model is based on sessions and pageviews. GA4, on the other hand, measures based on events and parameters.

An event is essentially any interaction that takes place on your website and app. Every action is recorded as an event. These events may then contain parameters that you can actively map. Parameters act as extra bits of relevant information on how a user interacts. This replaces the categories, labels, and actions for hit types found on UA.

UA vs GA4 event based vs session based

The difference between UA session-based model and GA4 event-based model. (Source: Rittman Analytics)

Events in GA4 fall into the following categories:

  • Automatically collected events - these are tracked by default, like page_view and session_start, and can’t be disabled.
  • Enhanced measurement events - also collected by default, but they can be enabled or disabled. Examples include site searches, outbound clicks, and scrolls.
  • Recommended events - these are events that Google deems to be pertinent to generating more useful reports based on your industry.
  • Custom events - events and parameters created by the user. At the moment, you can create up to 500 different custom events.

Session data is still collected on GA4, but it’s no longer the backbone. The way sessions are counted, in fact, has changed as a result. In UA, when the campaign source changes in the mid-session, a new session is triggered. This is not the case in GA4, a new campaign source will not result in a new session.

Benefits of an events-based model

The benefits of tracking users using an events-based model instead of a session-based approach are the depth of knowledge and flexibility.

Rather than tracking what a user does in one continuous visit, GA4 collates everything a user is doing without restraints. The emphasis is placed on user interactions across devices, platforms, and more, so your understanding of their behavior is amplified.

The way parameters are set up brings flexibility. You can assign the behavioral information you feel is necessary to track in order to gain specific, meaningful data for your business. Having events as a basis for measurement also makes it possible to compile web and app data into one.

Privacy

GA4 responds to the upcoming regulation around cookies and personal data collection. IP addresses here will be automatically anonymized, unlike UA where this needs to be manually implemented. GA4 does not log or store IP addresses.

GA4 also includes Privacy Consent Mode to strengthen the protection of personal data. This works by having predefined parameters so that tags adapt based on the user’s expressed preferences. The ability to read or write first-party analytics cookies, or write new cookies can only be done with consent. Where consent has been given, cookies will only be used for specified purposes.

google analytics privacy consent mode

How Privacy Consent Mode works and its impact on cookies (Source: Cookie Information)

That being said, even if a user does deny cookies, Google will still collect data important for modeling, but it won’t be possible to identify the user. This is possible through Conversion modeling.

Conversion modeling uses an algorithm that will try to fill in the data that’s absent as a result of consent not being given. According to Google it “allows for accurate conversion attribution without identifying users (for example, due to user privacy, technical limitations, or when users move between devices).”

Find out more: E-commerce Security: Things Shopify Merchants Should Know and Follow

Benefits of privacy update

A key perk of these new capabilities is that it will help eCommerce merchants adhere to regulations such as GDPR whilst lightening the damage it could pose.

By default, your users' privacy will be protected, but you’ll still be able to retain accurate information in the absence of first-party data. GA4 makes a distinction between consented, unfragmented first-party data and modeled data, UA doesn’t. Hence, this update puts e-merchants in an excellent position for a world less dependent on cookies.

Reports

A noticeable change in GA4 is the amount of standard, predefined reports available.

In the Reports section of GA4, there are two groups of reports; Life cycle and User. Life cycle contains the report types you’d find in UA; Acquisition, Monetization (Conversions in UA), and Engagement (Behavior in UA). Reports that focus on demographics and technology are in the User section.

The reports found under each of these options are fewer than in UA. This is because a lot of them have been removed as GA4 uses a different measurement model. A notable missing report is the Source/Medium report under Acquisitions. However, you can still have such a report by creating a custom one. Another reason why reports are lacking is that many of them won’t be generated until you begin tracking events.

The lack of standard reports also suggests that GA4 focuses more on custom creation. Particularly as there is a new reports feature.

ga4 explore reports

Templates for report creation on GA4 (Source: Data Driven U)

GA4 gives users access to a feature that was only available for GA360 accounts, Explorations. Here you’ll be able to gain insights that go deeper than the standard reports. It’s comprised of 3 sections:

  • Canvas - allows for multiple tabs to be added so you can use multiple techniques to dig into data. Techniques include:
    • Free-form exploration - uses a crosstab layout and supports different chart styles
    • Cohort exploration - for behavior and performance insights of users with common attributes
    • Funnel exploration - visualization of the steps customers take on your website and app to complete a task
    • Segment overlap - to gain an understanding of how different segments relate to each other
    • User exploration - insights into the users that make up your segments
    • Path exploration - see the route users take on your website and app
    • User lifetime - to learn how users behave and how valuable they are over their lifetime
  • Variables - gives access to the segments, dimensions, metrics, and timeframe of your exploration
  • Tab settings - to configure the settings of your current tab

Benefits of reports in GA4

What’s great about the new reporting capabilities of GA4 is user-centricity. You can gain a greater understanding of how consumers behave on your eCommerce site and app in different visual formats. Plus, data sets from your website and app are combined into one. It does require a bit more work, but the payoff is invaluable.

Segments

As GA4 utilizes an events-based measurement model, segments here have expanded from 2 to 3. In addition to the user and session segments found in UA, you can also create event segments. This gives you the ability to analyze the data of specific events that meet the criteria. What’s more, GA4 will automatically share your segments with Google Ads.

Benefits of event segments

With event segments you can stitch users together into a segment that would have been a pain to do in UA. By honing in on events, users across different devices and platforms can unite, and you can focus only on the specific interaction you’re concerned with.

segments difference ga4 event

In this example we can see how the Event segment is the best way to capture data of a single action (add_to_cart) without it being clouded with other data sets. (Source: Analytics Mania)

It also gives you the ability to generate more smartly-tuned audiences for ad campaigns. Making your ad bucks more effective as they are more likely to reach the right consumers.

You may be interested in: Common Mistakes That Hurt Your Google Ads Campaign of Your Shopify Store

Monthly Hit Limits

Another exciting new feature of GA4 is the removal of monthly hit limits. On the free version of UA, you are only able to collect data of up to 10 million hits per month. With GA4, there will be no restriction on how many hits you collect. Instead, GA4 places a limit on the amount of different events you can capture which is 500.

Benefit of no monthly hit limits

This is of great use to e-merchants that have a high volume of shoppers visiting their store. You can now collect all of the data you need without minimal limitations.

Other Notable Additions & Changes

New metrics in GA4

There are some new metrics available with a strong focus on engagement and machine learning.

  • Engaged sessions - the number of sessions that were 10 seconds or more, had at least 1 conversion event, or at least 2 page or screen views
  • Average engagement time per session - the average time a user was focused and active on your site
  • Engagement rate - the percentage of sessions that the user showed engagement
  • Predictive metrics - using machine learning GA4 will predict the probability of a purchase, the likelihood a user won’t be active in the next 7 days, and how much revenue you’re likely to receive from purchases.

These metrics replace Bounce rate. GA4 opts for engagement metrics over bounce rates as the former provides a clearer picture of user behavior. Bounce rate can be a misleading metric. It gives zero insights into why a user left which causes difficulties for productive decision-making if the focus is placed on it. Moreover, as GA4 moves towards events-triggered behavior, a metric that focuses on inactivity becomes redundant.

Benefits of new metrics

These new metrics bring store owners a more in-depth understanding of the current and future behavior of their customers. Then, you’ll be able to make impactful changes to your store and marketing activities.

For example, you can combine engagement metrics with events such as scrolls and clicks to understand how engaging different areas of your store are. A low average engagement time with tons of scrolls and few clicks could signify a lackluster page. You could compare such a page to one with more impressive engagement metrics to understand the type of content that resonates with your customers and adapt the less engaging page accordingly.

Access to BigQuery

BigQuery is a cloud data warehouse designed to help its users ingest, store, analyze, and visualize big data with ease. Put simply, it helps you turn big data into valuable insights for your business. BigQuery can be used to access public data sets, migrate data from warehouses, provide predictive analytics, or bring together data from multiple sources.

bigquery public data sets

BigQuery grants you the access to a treasure trove of public data such as trending search terms and census data. (Sources: Hevo Data & Pop SQL)

On UA, if you want access to BigQuery you need to be a GA360 customer which comes at the hefty price tag of $150,000 per year. With GA4, access to BigQuery is completely free. This means all merchants will have the ability to query large, complex data sets for segments without needing to worry about sampling.

Google Analytics 4 Takes Tracking To New Heights

Apparently, GA4 puts a strong focus on events. This gives eCommerce merchants access to data that is of immense value. E-merchants can have a holistic picture of their users and their behavior across platforms and devices in one tool using GA4.

The steps made in line with personal data security is another standout feature, particularly as we move towards a cookieless world. It puts store owners in a great position to adhere to current and future regulations whilst limiting their effects on the quality of data attained,

With GA4 eCommerce, merchants are equipped with all the necessary insights and features to make business decisions that drive sales. We'll be back with another article to explain how eCommerce businesses can take advantage of GA4, so subscribe to our newsletter & stay tuned!